For Stressed-Out CEOs, a Shoulder to Lean On

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The scene is a balmy evening in San Francisco’s SoMa, an historic warehouse district that’s now brimming with tony residential lofts. Entering the airy, modern space, all of the 30 visitors, mostly strangers to one another, are handed drinks and offered hors d’oeuvres but not given name tags. When it’s time for dinner, they’re encouraged to sit with people they’ve never met and introduce themselves without identifying their profession. “Ask ‘How are you?’ ” says Kari Sulenes, a psychologist and partner at Alpha Bridge Ventures, a finance firm that organized the event. “If you feel your interlocutor isn’t being honest, insist on asking, ‘How are you, really?’ ”

That guidance spurred one diner to reveal the difficulties she had balancing the demands of her job with the time she needed to plan her wedding. The founder of a health-care startup shared the stress he feels in running his company while going through a divorce and caring for his 2-year-old son. And a venture capitalist fretted about the extreme workload he faces assessing new investment prospects.

The evening was a networking dinner organized by Alpha Bridge and AngelList, another San Francisco venture capital fund. The companies say it’s part of their mission to support the executives they back not only financially, but also emotionally. The idea reflects the latest trend in the tech industry: professional development led by peers. These programs give rising executives a forum where they can safely air their grievances and seek solutions to problems on the job—a sympathetic ear or shoulder for people whose support systems haven’t kept up with their career advancement. Business owners today need “resources from counselors, therapists, personal trainers, nutritionists, home organizers,” says Cory Kidd, founder of medical technology startup Catalia Health Inc. and a participant in the Alpha Bridge event. It’s important to “really look very broadly at the challenges of running a company.”

Enrich, a San Francisco startup that brings professionals together for periodic dinners, forms groups of up to eight people with related positions or job titles—say, engineering vice presidents or chief marketing officers—at companies of about the same size. “Executives can talk to somebody who has similar challenges,” says founder Jordana Stein. “If it feels like networking, we’re not doing it right, because we want people to be relaxed and authentic.” (Bloomberg Beta, the venture capital arm of Bloomberg LP, publisher of Bloomberg Businessweek, is an investor in Enrich.)

Clients include Facebook, Google, and Oracle, and Enrich avoids putting competitors together—people from Lyft and Uber, for instance, wouldn’t attend the same session. Participants are asked what topics they want to discuss, while a moderator ensures the conversation stays on point. Although Enrich offers an online message board where group members can stay in touch, the real point is the person-to-person contacts, says David Rogier, an investor in the company whose team also participates in its events. “As a CEO, you can sometimes feel really alone,” says Rogier, a co-founder of MasterClass, a website that offers online lessons from the likes of basketball star Stephen Curry, writer Aaron Sorkin, and chef Gordon Ramsay. “But ultimately, we’re all going through the same thing.”

A New York company called Declare offers similar support focused on women in finance. Founded in 2017 by four women, Declare provides leadership training and a recruitment service. Its 1,000 members pay anywhere from $2,500 to $8,500 a year for networking events, monthly meetings with peers facilitated by a senior professional, and access to a jobs database used by companies such as investment banks Goldman Sachs and Lazard and private equity firms Apollo and TPG.

At a recent Declare talk in San Francisco, 20 women worked through simulated performance reviews with a career coach. One participant, Emmy Sobieski, says the service was a big help as her finance startup struggled last year. “We meet once a month, and everybody is generous by offering connections for fundraising and suggestions for partnerships,” Sobieski says.

A more venerable provider of such services is the YPO—Young Presidents’ Organization—a 70-year-old group that’s adapting to the digital age. It started in 1950 as a gathering of 20 business leaders in New York, and today it has 27,000 members worldwide, whose companies have a combined revenue of $9 trillion. For an annual fee of $3,750, members get access to international events, local meetings with peers, mentorship, and online coaching. Leah Busque, a founder of TaskRabbit, a web platform for finding service workers, joined in 2012. When she was negotiating the sale of her company to Ikea in 2017, she says, her YPO peers served as a sort of “personal advisory board of directors.” People who had sold their companies “advised me how to think about it, and that was incredibly helpful,” says Busque, who now works at venture fund Fuel Capital. Without their support, “it would have been a lot harder, and I would have not been as confident.”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Dimitra Kessenides at dkessenides1@bloomberg.net, David Rocks

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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